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The Monster’s Offer
Years Before the Monster’s children form
The good days of peace were gone for Hempel. The peace of the war was gone, replaced by the struggle to come to terms with the death of her family. Her Lord Tala, the Raven, had many warriors, but only six Weapon Holders, six Chosen. Dead now—all the others dead. Six Chosen down to one, in short order. Hempel’s family decimated. Hempel was the last, would be the last, must not be the last. She would find Carlisle and repay him for the deaths of her family. Tala had decreed that until Carlisle was at an end and the Raven Sword he had stolen returned, no new Chosen would be lifted above the other warriors in his armies. The Chosen of Coyote were off fighting another battle. The Chosen of Fox were hidden in the shadows. And the Chosen of Uazit—well, they had been gone from the world for generations, for very good reason. Hempel had only herself, to face the forces of Order. She momentarily cursed her luck at having no tools other than herself to find and destroy Carlisle. But if Tala thought she was enough, then she would need to be enough. The struggle would be difficult, but if Hempel had not been stubborn, she would never have survived the day she had been born upon the ice.
Hempel felt peace slip away from her heart as she recalled the fight in the desert against her hated foe. The dance had been a work of art to be remembered in the history of warfare. They had first been smooth dancers, pairing off—before the days of battle and exhaustion had made them animals, slicing and hacking at one another. Hempel still shied away from the memory of the depths they had reached. They were both masters, taken to the brink of barbarianism in their exhaustion. The shame of their draw still filled Hempel’s throat with bile. A shame that drove her now, with the rage of Tala filling her heart as she looked on the warriors who faced her.
Hempel let her left Ulu cut through the grey-clad warrior in a smooth, even stroke. The warriors around her were insects buzzing about. If Hempel had been an emotional person, the violence would have been an outlet, but she had little to do with emotions. What she had was a task. The task to find the Sword and end Carlisle. She swept back, away from the dying warrior, ducking down as her arms fanned out, cutting through two more warriors behind her. Without ever looking, she felt their blood flow and bodies drop even as she danced ahead, letting her half-moon blades cut deep into the next warrior. She had no thoughts about the death and wounds around her. Her goal was to end the fight, move forward, take the next step.
Her Ulus were made of Raven’s own feathers, and they looked like nothing so much as black obsidian, sparkling as darkly as the night sky. She held night in her hands, and nothing stopped those half-moon blades of darkness.
Hempel felt wind as a blade passed over her backward, bent form, and she threw her feet into the air, flipping completely around. Midair, she took stock of the world around her. Four warriors still stood; seven were on the ground bleeding. Of those on the ground, two still lived, though they were bleeding out rather quickly. Hempel had not meant for them to die painfully, but she had been caught in the moment and mistakes happened. Before the rage, she had not known such mistakes, but the rage drove her now. The four still standing held swords, and she took a moment to curse the fact that they did not have guns. People with guns always overestimated their ability and died the faster. People with swords usually had at least attempted to practice.
Hempel’s body came full-circle, and her feet found earth. She stepped back, one night-dark blade before her face, the other held low over her belly. The four remaining warriors circled her. They were wearing their loose-fitting grey uniforms. The forces of the Queen always wore grey uniforms, much like dull ninjas in the old black-and-white samurai flicks Hempel had learned to love during the human’s second World War. Her own comfortable hand-woven clothing was pastels with hand-stitched decorations around the cuffs and collar.
Today she wore a light blue cotton with pink-and-green flower decorations on the high, square collar she had stitched herself. She liked the stitching along the edges, as she felt it highlighted the long birthmark that slipped along the dark skin of her face. Hempel thought the Queen was missing out on real individuality with her choice in grey everything for her armies. But then, why should the Queen care about individuality for such low-level soldiers? Her Champions were individual enough.
Hempel settled into her forms and felt her body balance. She searched within herself for the tranquility and peace she had once known amid battle, but the itch of Carlisle still breathing kept that peace away. She had fought him once, to a standstill, but in their next meeting, she would end him. Even without peace, she found her balance as her weight rested upon the balls of her feet, and the blades she held rested comfortably in her hands. Balance was once all she had known—that and stubbornness.
A grey-clad woman swung her sword high and back down, but Hempel’s right Ulu was out, catching the blade upon its fan-like surface in a clang of metal on metal. Hempel’s blades were dark as night, with light catching the many veins throughout. She knew it looked as if she held the starry sky in her hands. The light caught and reflected along the blades in cuts and breaks, making an array of smoky death.
The Ulu was sharper and better-made than the sword. It cut partway through the steel blade. Hempel was grateful that the woman had not struck harder, as the blade might have been cut in half and finished its arc toward Hempel’s face. Hempel spun in a silent dance, bringing her left hand around, letting the Ulu held there open the woman’s stomach. The move brought her full-circle, and she pulled the right blade from the sword and swung it around behind her. Before the woman could fall, Hempel stepped one foot onto the woman’s knee and ran up and over the falling body. She landed her blade deep in the next grey-clad warrior, who in seconds became a grey-clad corpse. She pulled her Ulus free and turned and flicked the blood off them.
Hempel hated blood on her blades; it seemed to dull them and cause them to catch the air, slowing their movement. She loved the feel of clean, even blades passing through the air. Proper care of her blades was one of the first lessons she had learned—lessons she held dear, as all who had taught them were now dead. Dead by Carlisle’s hand. She felt the silent tug, pulling her to end him. She needed to end him; she could not stop the driving need with which Tala filled her. A god’s rage filled her like an itch.
Two warriors remained. Hempel laughed inside, in a failed attempt to clear the itch, and she flicked her Ulus once more, before sliding them into their sheaths at her sides. She cocked her head to the side to crack her neck. She gave thanks that her jet-black hair was cut short and would not bother her sight lines. She knew her reddish, caramel-colored skin glowed in the light, and the birthmark across her face created shadows along one side. Her native features shone through, with high cheek bones and dusky skin. She knew that her youngish looks and lithe frame were far from intimidating. She knew she looked like a small, dark doll. None of that should have mattered, because her legend preceded her, not to mention the fact that she had just cut through an entire force.
She shook her head as the two men charged toward her, completely ignoring the obvious danger that Hempel represented, even now that she was bare-handed. Her short stature and feminine form had created a sense of superiority in the two large male warriors. The closest warrior swung his sword at Hempel’s head with his strong, “manly” arms. She caught the blade and spun around, sliding against him and into his guard. Her back was pressed against his chest. She twisted and pulled, relieving him of his weapon, and slammed the back of her head into his face. She felt the crunch of bone cracking under the back of her head. She stepped away, flipping the sword in the air. The second warrior charged toward her as she caught the spinning sword by the hilt and knocked the warrior’s weapon away, before driving the stolen blade into his chest.
The man died as Hempel turned to the warrior with the broken face and bleeding nose. She had disarmed him and cracked his face. She had killed his forces and left him alone, bleeding. She walked to him now and gently took his hand in her own. It was warm and covered along the palm with the callouses of a sword fighter. She broke his index finger. She wanted to break him further, and she would, if he did not answer. “Where is Carlisle?”
“I asked politely. Where is Carlisle?” Her voice was a whisper. She forced the man to his knees, still holding him by his broken finger. She sought serenity.
“I don’t know. I don’t fucking know.”
Hempel reached down and pushed her finger into the man’s left eye, feeling the soft squish as her digit slid in. “Where is he?”
The man screamed in agony as he tried to pull back, only to find himself held tight by the broken finger. Hempel felt the all-pervasive itch of Tala’s rage, and she took a breath. She was not built to be a creature of anger and brutality but a creature of smooth artistry. She counted: one, two, three. Her calm returned, and she steadied her mind. She leaned over him, breathing her soft breath into his face, waiting. Again, she whispered to the man. “I apologize. That was uncalled for. Please. Where is Carlisle?”
“I don’t know. Please. I don’t know.”
Hempel shook her head; the man just was not being cooperative. She broke another finger and pulled his head closer, looking deep into the man’s one good eye. The man began to cry, and Hempel turned her head, considering. She was calm; she breathed in the calm. She imparted part of the calm into the man, willing him to know his fate. Her serenity was a serpent crawling into his mind and giving him peace. She felt her spirit smother his own. The man let out a smooth, quiet breath of acceptance. “He is in the caves, the caves in the Shabo Desert. He stays there to be close to the city of caves. Please, he is in the caves.” The man began to weep.
“The desert is large; how would one find the caves?”
“They are through the base of the mountains—the only mountains in the desert. Please believe me.”
Hempel leaned back on her heels, considering this creature before her. It was a man, but not a human man. She sniffed at it and tasted the scent of a speaking animal. But he did not have the shape of a speaking animal. Somehow, he looked as if he was human. She idly wondered why the Queen would force her warriors into a human shape, but it did not matter. What mattered was that she could smell truth on him. She could smell his fear of death and his need to grovel. She had broken him, and she knew he would not defy her again. Her spirit overlay his own. “You will go now. You will leave this place, and you will find him for me in these caves. You will tell Carlisle that he will come to me. He will find me, and I will end him. Remind him that I have his daughter, still, in the bosom of the Clans, and she will die most painfully if he does not bring the Sword to me. We are near a city, I believe, to the West of us. Tell him I will await him there.”
She looked at the man’s one good eye, making sure his look was one of understanding. She felt that understanding as she pulled her spirit from him. She tilted her head to the side and considered him before plucking the good eye out and leaving the man to weep in his blindness.
Hempel was shaken by the damage she had done. Such brutality was not her way. She struggled to find her peace, but she found only the rage of Tala within her. Ever since Carlisle had killed the others, she had felt this rage bubbling deep within her. Tala had always been serenity, but Carlisle had broken that peace. Hempel reached for her peace. She wanted a return to what was. Back when she had been tranquil. But serenity was gone, and the itch drove her. The anger of her god was overwhelming. She took a breath and sipped her tea. She knew Carlisle would come. He wanted the other Raven Weapons, and she had them. She was the last of the Weapon Holders, and he would come to end the line of the Raven in the name of Order. The Queen would demand that battle of him, just as Tala demanded it of her.
The coffee shop Hempel had chosen was a low-key hipster joint with men and women on laptops sipping java all around her. She was fascinated by how many of the establishment’s patrons were female. The females ranged from teenagers to old women, while only a few middle-aged males sat here and there. She wondered if the gender preference was the industry or perhaps this country or state. Humans had such different facades between cultures, and Hempel had not bothered to pay attention for many decades. She thought for a second that she was in a place called Oregon, but such human titles had ceased to matter to her, even before she had stopped paying attention. She sipped her tea again and waited for the man of the hour to appear.
The tension between peace and rage within her ticked the hours away, the increased anger within her ratcheting up to mark the time. The time passing was a pain. Her whole life before this had been one of peaceful violence, each cut a work of art. But her days as an artist seemed gone, as she screamed inside for Carlisle. He took his time but did not disappoint.
Carlisle set a cup down on the small table between them at about the time the weight of the itch reached its peak. He was dressed in an immaculate suit and tie, and a calm smile rested upon his Arabic features. He may have come from the Shabo Desert, but the sands of the desert were absent from his manicured perfection. Not a single perfect piece of his ensemble was out of place. “You sent for me, dear one.” His voice felt as tailored as his clothing.
Hempel sighed at the sound, missing what once had been. “You brought the Raven Sword; that is good.”
“I brought many things. This will be the end of Tala’s Chosen—the end of all but one of us.”
“So we hope.” Hempel took a calming breath and sipped her tea. She looked at him, his well-dressed, immaculately clean demeanor. “You brought your forces of Order.” It was a statement; she knew him well.
“Of course. We are here to bring order. You still claim you fight for freedom, dear one, but we both know you fight for chaos. There can be no more chaos. We must find a way forward, to bring law.”
“There can be no peace with a boot upon our necks, Carlisle.”
“Oh, Hempel.” Any other words he had wished to utter were silenced as her empty mug slammed against his face, knocking him and his chair back across the room. The warriors he had brought charged in, cutting toward her, and she threw herself back, crashing through the shop’s window to land unhindered upon the sidewalk outside, each broken piece of glass its own miniature mirror raining around her. Her world was all sharp edges, reflecting herself back at her. The gentle tinkling of broken glass pattered around her feet.
Hempel’s reached out, catching a driving sword and snapping the arm and spinning the sword around into the neck of the wielder. She pulled the sword free and dove into a smooth roll, coming up to drive the blade into the stomach of another warrior before dancing back with the weapon above her head, held in the universal stance of swordsmen daring anyone to come near. An army of warriors circled her as the humans scattered in fear. There was no fear in Hempel as she caught her breath and steadied her mind. She snapped her neck first left and then right, breathing deeply. These warriors would meet their own blades in death. Hempel’s Ulus were too good for the likes of them.
They did not charge in but circled as Carlisle walked out of the building. He moved in his own unhurried way, bringing his cultured aura to the street. With the two great warriors, the street was higher-class then it had been without them. They were two jewels of yesteryear, gems sparkling, reflecting each other, Carlisle with the weight of a grey-clad army at his back and Hempel, with only screaming and running humans. The night sky was long and sharp in Carlisle’s hands as he raised the Raven Sword above him. It was as deep and dark as her own Ulus, and the night sky cracked and sparkled as it reflected the sun. Hempel had a moment to wonder if she would live through this before he struck.
Sparks flew as the black blade met the silvered metal of the stolen sword she held. Hempel slid under and through his guard. They moved in a blur of strikes and parries. The steady slap of metal on metal clanged through the street as Hempel felt the stolen blade first nick then break away, leaving only the hilt in her hand. She dropped it and dived through his guard, rolling as she pulled her Ulus and spun back around to catch his killing strike between them. They looked deeply into each other’s eyes as he pressed down and she pressed up.
“We are evenly matched, dear one.”
“And yet I will kill you, traitor.”
“If we were alone, perhaps. But you are alone, and I am not.”
The sharp swipe of a steel blade cut toward Hempel’s side, making her dodge, releasing the pressing sword of night. She narrowly missed another swipe as she cut through a grey-clad warrior and realized she was surrounded by enemy combatants. It had been too much to hope that Carlisle would fight fair. The forces of Order cared only about their justice, never about their honor.
Hempel parried one blade then dived under another before spinning up and through a warrior’s guard, cutting necks and arms as she flipped and turned in a dance of life and death. Carlisle took every advantage to cut in with his blade of stars, and she was hard-pressed to parry any move, let alone counter and strike back. Carlisle had brought too many warriors. Hempel should have known he would not come to duel, but to kill.
Hempel could feel the hard strike of blades against her guard as she caught each strike and spun to slice flesh. Her arms began to burn with the ache of each strike she parried. Blades struck back, and as she killed, she could feel the many cuts along her body start to take their toll. She was losing. She might take the army with her, but she could either fight the army or she could fight Carlisle—not both, not if she wished to live. Hempel juked back and rolled away, coming back up in a defensive stance against the army aligned against her. Carlisle gloated as he raised his arms around himself and began to laugh. “Today, I take the final Holder of the Raven Weapons. Today, I bring order to the last jewel of the dark Trickster.”
Before Carlisle’s words left the air, a small, dark form drove its way into the heart of his warriors. A long obsidian sword cut this way and then that, dropping grey-clad forms as it cleaved its way through the masses. A small blur of black that left death in its wake.
Hempel took no time to register what the form was before she dived forward herself. She felt flesh bitten by her steel as she circled this way and then that. She dropped and jumped, leaned left and cut right, feeling the deep pull of her weapons meeting bone and meat. The grey-clad warriors dropped, and in a single breath, Hempel realized she no longer had enemies to fight.
Carlisle was gone, leaving only the bodies of his warriors to indicate that he had ever been there. The street was bathed in a thin coating of blood, and limp bodies lined the walkways. A small girl stood with a black sword gleaming before her face. Where the Raven Sword had reflected the sun, this girl’s sword seemed to drink in the light. Hempel had never seen the girl, who looked to be just growing out of childhood. The body count between them, though, was not a child’s work. The girl had a child’s height and a stick-thin frame. The long black sword in her hand drank in the light around her. A dark collar at her throat hugged tight like a choker; both it and her sword seemed made of obsidian. Blood covered the girl’s Asian features and long black hair.
A sharp cough brought Hempel’s attention to the left, to a blonde man who stood motionless among the bodies. He was of medium height and had an athletic build wrapped in a grey suit. He seemed to be in his mid-twenties, but Hempel knew this to be a lie. A jade collar hugged his throat. He had not participated in the battle, yet he did not look out of place among the carnage. The look on his face was one of boredom, yet he gave Hempel a smile that pretended to care. She had not seen him in decades. “Alex?”
“Hempel, it has been much too long.”
“Why are you here?”
“I have come with an offer from Uazit.”
“I have nothing to give the Spider. You may keep your crazy goddess.”
“Aw, but you have so much to offer. You see, the Tricksters have realized that without Tala’s Chosen to fight, they need warriors beyond the army’s ability. They need my children. And my children need a teacher.”
“I have no time for children.”
“That is perplexing. Raven had indicated that you may make time if we promised to assist in the hunt of Carlisle and the retaking of the Raven Sword.”
Hempel’s eyes narrowed. “Tala promised this?”
“It was indicated as a possibility that you would help. You would be the best to train my children. Nettle, here, already bonded with you in battle.”
Hempel looked at Alex and then over at the child. She closed her eyes and felt the itch drain away as the rage subsided with her choice. Tala would guide her; she would use the tools that had been sent. As she made her decision, the rage dissipated completely.
Years after the Monster’s children Form.
“The war started well before any human living can remember—the war between freedom and control. It has always been fought in secret, the speaking animals and spirits of the land taking sides and embracing one or the other. The forces of Order came out strong, and the forces of freedom came back stronger.
“There were those who wished to be left alone, but in time, no one could go without a side for protection. Those in the cracks were ground into dust. And so, the world of spirits was split between ideals on how to rule the world. But it took time to reach the point of ideological differences seen today. The war did not start here, for before the war, all divergent attitudes had a place.
“How did the war start? Some said with a baby’s first cry. Others said there was a monster—the Monster. It killed whomever it wished and did whatever it wanted. It was ruled by no kingdom, held back by no borders. No one could stop the Monster’s gleeful rampage of vivacious life. It lived a life of excess that few others had ever experienced. And it struck fear and envy in the hearts of all who perceived it.
“But there were those who did not fear the Monster. One day, in the open seas, the Queen of Order was enraged by its uncouth actions and so confronted it. It is said she did not wish to, but then who would? It was the Monster. In her anger, she drove it from the sea, but she could not kill it. The Queen, fearing what would come from the altercation, built her army, picked her Champions. But with all her power, even she could not defeat the Monster. It lived, so she built and prepared.
“The four gods dedicated to freedom, known as Tricksters, traveled the world. They found themselves worried by the growing army of Order. The Tricksters feared that the force would be used to cut back on their whimsical lifestyle. It is no small discomfort when those that disagree with you build an army, regardless of its intended use. Spider, Raven, Coyote, and Fox agreed that each would create their bands of Chosen, and with them, weapons to be used. Even through their fear of the Monster, the aligned forces eyed each other askew. The cold war of the Monster began.
“But it would not last even the length of a single human pregnancy. Spider’s Chosen were slaughtered by the Monster in combat. Spider was furious, and violently so. The Monster, in all its glory, had done her wrong. She chained it and buried it deep within history, succeeding through her sheer maliciousness where all others had failed. Spider had long been feared for her whimsically malicious nature, and with the Monster’s defeat, that fear grew.
“The Queen and Spider argued over the Monster and what to do with the chained beast. The other Gods came to Spider’s defense. Without the Monster to unite them all, the armies of Order were free to do battle with the Chosen of the Gods. The Queen determined that the Gods and their whimsies had become as dangerous as the Monster had been, so she sought to control them. The Queen knew that the Tricksters, especially, would never bow to the rule of Order without being forced, so she commanded her Champions to lead her armies against them. She believed that without the Tricksters, the other Gods would step in line.
“The armies of Order came at the Tricksters strongly. And freedom came back stronger. The cold war had grown hot. Nobody wished the world to die, so they fought in secret. Champions fought Chosen on battlefields hidden from the view of the masses. Humans were left out of it, and only the spirits of the land and talking animals took part.
“The other Tricksters feared the Spider’s legendary maliciousness, so they begged her not to join the fight. The Monster had killed her Chosen, and they asked her not to create more to replace them. She accepted their demands and merely watched. The war waged, with her on the sidelines.
“The war was mostly balanced, until Order came into the possession of key Champions tempted from their families. They killed the Chosen of Raven down to one and took the great Raven Sword. They decimated the warriors of freedom, one by one. Coyote fought a guerilla war against a great black snake upon the land. Fox disappeared into the shadows, the fate of her and her Chosen unknown. Raven and Coyote knew their loss was coming if they did not act. So they approached Spider and begged her to help.
“She had come now from the shadows and picked her Chosen.
“The Chosen of Spider were gathered, and they took on the forces of Order in skirmishes and battles. They were a band of teens trained by one creature that pretended to be a man, along with the last of Raven’s Chosen. They brought a new viciousness to the war, unseen before, and began the push back against the forces of the Queen. They grew into their power, and the world wept.
“One traitor was killed, and another was born. Uazit’s child of ivory joined the armies of Order. The Raven Sword was returned, and with it the Clans of Raven came together to find the path their god had chosen.”
If you enjoyed the story check out the young adults that the children Hempel trains become in Dan’s first book in his Trickster’s War Series: “Monster’s Children”
For information on new stories and books check out Dan’s blog: Our Orchard.